A woman of substance;Book of the week;Books

27th November 1998 at 00:00
DOROTHY HODGKIN: A LIFE. By Georgina Ferry. Granta. pound;20.

If you're searching for role models in science for teenage girls, look no further than NobelPrize-winning chemist Dorothy Hodgkin, whose life story can now be read for the first time. By Joan Mason.

When Baroness Jay's Women's Unit recently looked for role models for teenagers, the names of Geri "Spice" Halliwell and Emma Thompson emerged. The Office of Science and Technology's Girls into Science poster series has added, in Peter Mandelson's words, images of "young women in casual, trendy clothes with successful personal lives, who just happen to be scientists".

Why not go straight to the top? The first biography of Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994) shows what can be achieved by youthful enterprise and ambition. Dorothy was the first woman since Florence Nightingale to receive the Order of Merit, the only woman from this country to win a Nobel Prize and the first woman Nobellist in chemistry, after Marie Curie (1911) and her daughter Ir ne Joliot-Curie (1935).

Her life is well documented because she never threw anything away and she wrote countless letters: to her parents in Egypt and the Sudan, where her father was director of education and antiquities; daily letters to her husband, Thomas, who worked away from home throughout their married life (in adult education in the north of England, later in Africa); to her Cambridge mentor, "Sage" (Desmond) Bernal.

Everyone called her Dorothy except her family, who called her Dossie. As well as a history of the early days of chemical crystallography, Georgina Ferry's book is an assiduously researched family chronicle with its glimpses of supportive but demanding parents, high expectations and huge responsibilities (Dorothy, the eldest of four daughters, took charge while her parents were abroad).

She traced her love of chemistry back to the "surveyor's kit" that she was given as a child by "Uncle Joseph", the Sudan government chemist and the Hodgkins's neighbour in Khartoum. Back home in England, aged 11, she studied chemistry in the attic, under the wooden rafters, with a bottle of crystals and a Bunsen burner.

After a chemistry degree at Somerville College, Oxford, she was drawn to crystallography (she was fascinated by the mosaics that she first saw in Egypt as a child). Uncle Joseph recommended Cambridge, and Bernal. Following her PhD, her beloved Somerville offered her a job and she spent the rest of her working life at Oxford. At 27 she married Thomas, the nephew of another mentor - the Somerville principal and penal reform campaigner Margery Fry. With Thomas away during the week, Dorothy relied on help from their extended families to juggle the demands of work and three children. From the age of 24 she suffered badly from rheumatoid arthritis, which later crippled her hands and feet.

Crystallography offered opportunities at a time when Oxbridge and science were not friendly to women (Oxford did not admit women as full members until 1923, Cambridge not until 1948, and both applied quotas). But women could find their way into newly expanding fields, particularly those that involved dedicated, painstaking work before automatic methods were developed.

Georgina Ferris gives a detailed account of the triumphs of Dorothy and her young Oxford team. The structures they determined included cholesterol, Vitamin D, penicillin, Vitamin B12 (the active principle in liver and the cure for pernicious anaemia) and insulin.

Dorothy was 35 when they made the penicillin breakthrough, and at 37 was elected to the Royal Society, the academy of science (most new fellows were over 50). She was only the fifth woman to be elected; the percentage of women fellows is still only 3.3. When she won her Nobel Prize in 1964 for her work on insulin and B12, the Daily Mail headline read "Grandmother wins Nobel Prize".

Her involvement in left-wing politics and pacifism led her into networks which contained few women - but highly talented ones. Dorothy was profoundly anti-war; her mother's four brothers had been killed in the First World War. She joined in the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs, through which scientists from the Soviet Union, China, Europe, North America, Japan and Australia gathered information on nuclear and chemical weapons, and was elected Pugwash President in the 1970s. Because of such "un-American" activities, she was refused a visa to the United States in 1953.

Her most famous chemistry pupil, Margaret Thatcher, was a disappointment to her: she got a second-class degree and later gave up chemistry for law. Dorothy wrote to Thatcher in 1970 to complain about cuts in university funding and the abolition of student grants, and received a friendly reply. In 1983 she was invited to lunch at Chequers. On a scrap of paper headed "Notes for Margaret", Dorothy wrote "Object: to rethink relations with the Soviet Union on the basis that friendship is possible and would be to everyone's advantage: trade, science, art, the lot".

Thatcher met Mikhail Gorbachev in Britain, called him "a man I can do business with" and went to Moscow. Her 1987 visit took in the Institute of Crystallography, and return visitors from the Moscow Institute found a portrait of Dorothy on the wall behind the Prime Minister's desk.

Joan Mason is chair of the Association for Women in Science and Engineering, a networking organisation. Telephonefax: 01647 221316; Web site: www.awise.orgThe Government's Promoting Science for Women unit: 0171

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